What is a Dry Drunk?

Dry Drunk

The term dry drunk is used a lot in AA and in recovery generally. Some people find it helpful, other people find it a bit judgmental.

Whatever it may mean to people, its real value lies in its ability to generate a sense of the need to change, and what that change actually means.

Living Sober

When someone gets sober or stops drinking, it soon becomes apparent, either consciously or unconsciously, that their real issue is how do they manage to live with themselves sober.

In order to understand this, it is important to realise that for most alcoholics, by the end of their drinking, alcohol had become the solution not the problem. This may have happened at the start of their drinking, or much later on.

It is unlikely that they will have realised this before they get sober, but their instinct will have been to drink because they believed that alcohol was the one or only thing that was holding them together.

People may look for specific reasons why they drink, but more often than not the real triggers are internal.

Once people are in recovery, and the alcohol has gone, they begin to realise this truth, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly !

Most people drink by nature, by instinct, and they do it in some way to cope with real emotional and psychological problems, that they may or may not be aware of.

In this sense alcohol becomes the solution not the problem as it either dulls the pain or becomes the main coping mechanism in someone’s life.

Coping Mechanisms

Any coping mechanisms can also be quite destructive in its own way, and this is certainly true of alcoholism.

However for most people in active alcoholism, the fear of losing alcohol is so strong that it blocks their ability to face reality, or the consequences of their drinking. This becomes the root of their denial, which deepens within them the worse their drinking becomes.

This means that when someone does eventually get sober, they begin to become aware of the very things inside them, emotionally and psychologically, that alcohol was in some way helping them cope with.

At some point they reach a stage where they know that they have to change in order to stay sober, but are also that they cannot change on their own will power alone.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous describes this as a situation where you can’t live with alcohol, and you can’t live without it.

This is normally the reason why most people in recovery do eventually look to the experience of AA as a way of being able to change, and begin to work through the 12 step program of recovery.

The Need to Change

There is a saying in AA that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who is bad with alcohol and worse without it.

This normally refers to someone who is sober but has not really changed their inner world or behaviours, and is in many ways acting out in a worse way than they did when they were drinking.

This sense of a need to change is really about changing their inner world first, although for some people their behaviour may be so destructive that it needs to be urgently addressed as well .

This is at the heart of what being a dry drunk actually means. It is not a judgement on any individual. It is a sense that when someone gets sober they are faced with the reality of their illness which becomes them having to live sober without alcohol.

For some people this is too scary to really contemplate, and they will either drink again or find some other coping mechanism, often as destructive as alcohol.

Inner World

At the heart of recovery is a need or an understanding of the need to change internally.

Once sober, many people begin to have intense feelings of anger or fear, or both!

This is often the legacy of a lot of emotional damage that has been buried under the force of alcohol, but once sober becomes a lived experience.

This drives an awareness of the need to change their inner world, but also a real sense of difficulty or hopelessness about how to do it. It may be more helpful to think of it in terms of healing, rather than just change.

This hopefully will eventually move people in the direction of the 12 step program of recovery as detailed in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Over time most people come to realise that this process can heal their inner world, in a way they could not do themselves.


The term unmanageable is used in Step One of the AA program, and is often taken to refer to the whole life experience of an alcoholic.

For many people, especially when sober, they come to realise their real unmanageability is in fact an emotional one, which tends to show itself in their behaviours and relationships to family, friends and society generally.

This realisation, although painful at first, actually allows the person to become willing to move in a different direction internally,

It is this change of direction that ultimately lets the healing process happen and allows people to live at peace with themselves in a way that they have probably never done before.